Book Review: The Lives of Dillon Ripley

The Lives of Dillon Ripley cover

There’s rich, and then there’s inherited wealth rich.  Truly wealthy people don’t live like the rest of us, their world isn’t like ours.  Dillon Ripley was born into this otherworld of true privilege and power.  In spite of that, he spent a good deal of his life trying to bring art, science, and education to people who didn’t live in his world.  Equally at home at a snobby Washington D.C. party, hobnobbing with scions of power or in the wilderness of India, he was a man willing to sleep on a dirt floor while having the most posh of tastes.  Along the way, he worked as a spy in Southeast Asia, helped nurture the growing conservation movement, and turned the “nation’s attic” into a welcoming, thriving museum complex that draws close to thirty million guests a year.

With this book, Roger E. Stone explores the life of a man who helped to shape the modern version of the city I love, Washington D.C.  Though he didn’t do it alone, he was, to say the least, a driving force behind a tectonic shift in how we view and interact with museums in America, adding eight new museums to the Smithsonian family, launching a magazine, and having his fingers in many other important projects.  At a time when America was tearing itself apart with riots and protests, Ripley, a wealthy, white New Englander born with a silver spoon in his mouth, reached out to the underserved people of D.C., fostering the creation of what is now known as the Anacostia Community Museum that helped generations of often ignored African American residents of D.C. experience what they’d often felt left behind by.

Ripley’s time in D.C. was especially interesting to me.  Though I don’t work for the Smithsonian, I do work for a museum, and I can’t help but see how what Ripley did for this city and for museums generally laid the groundwork for the place that keeps a roof over my head.  However, his story stretches far beyond my adopted city, far beyond his lavish family estate in Litchfield, Connecticut, all the way to war-torn Thailand and ecologically damaged India.  He socialized with Julia McWilliams and her to-be husband Paul Child while they all worked for “Wild Bill” Donovan and the O.S.S.  He expanded the Smithsonian’s reach into the city of his birth, New York, New York.  He almost died on more than one occasion due to various misadventures through jungles and wilderness.  All the while, he held a deep fascination for birds, which were his personal passion throughout his life.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly.  Ripley was a fascinating man both of his time and wonderfully ahead of it.  A self-aggrandizing, snobbish empire builder, he was also a lead-from-the front, roll-up-your-sleeves do-gooder who believed deeply in the dissemination of knowledge to all, not simply the monied elite or reclusive academic.  If you’ve been to D.C. in the last 50 years, you’ve been in a new city, a city that Ripley helped to shape.  If you’ve been to a museum that actively tries to engage with its guests instead of simply housing some old stuff, you likely have Ripley to thank for that, even if indirectly.  He deserves to be remembered.

Listen to a podcast about Ripley here.

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